I had not imagined how intimate it would be to read the handwritten letters of 60+ artists. Many names were familiar to me from my art school background. Those who where new, quickly became familiar through the personality of their handwriting. There is something so immediate and personal about handwritten letters. Pen to Paper is a testimony to that cursive magic! And as an added bonus, many of the artists’ letters are displayed alongside one of their paintings, giving the viewer the chance to compare pen and brush strokes together!
I read only a third of the letters in the show, and I definitely will return for more. Each letter offers a glimpse into the world of the artist. Grandma Moses, for example, writes about “Famaly” and neighbors, and “a lovely Christmass dinner. The were 12 of us at the table, a happy lot…” Her script has no frills, it is clear and concise. She uses all space available in her letter, and like her paintings, she records the joys of family and community.
Maxfield Parrish‘s handwriting is very legible, with a bit of whimsy. He adds a few flourishes with some capital letters. In his letter to a friend, he complains about the commercial demand for “Parrish blue” in his paintings, and his strong desire “to do some things for myself.”
Thomas Eakins has very elegant handwriting. His father was a writing master in Philadelphia in 19th century. All the Eakins children were trained to write Copperplate script beautifully. Often, they would assist their father with diplomas during a busy season. Thomas Eakins’ portraits are extremely precise paintings. However, the letter on display to his sister, Frances, shows the artist with a relaxed, freer hand- several errors are crossed out, and a word is inserted.
Saul Steinberg’s “letter” is an example of his “intentionally indecipherable script which he began to develop in the mid 1940’s. ” As a Romanian-born immigrant who assisted those seeking visas to flee Fascist Italy, he went on to use his artistic talents to forge diplomas, passports, and other “certifications.” (p.134)
His real handwriting was clear, very readable. This fraudulent script complete with seals and crests showed his disdain for bureaucratic “pomposity.”
Robert Motherwell’s handwriting is bold and angular. He was an advocate of the Surrealist practice of “psychic automatism,” or “artful scribbling” is how Motherwell termed it. A free association of the pen or the brush. In his own words he described the process,”You let the brush take over and in a way follow its own head, and in the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t by oneself.” Or in other words, creating art without conscious thought.
His letter in the exhibit was written in 1950 just as he was preparing for his first exhibition of his Elegy to the Spanish Republic. (See paintings above and below)
These are but just a few of the treasures from the show at the Florence Griswold Museum’s Pen to Paper Exhibit. (-till May 6, 2018)
If you don’t live nearby, the accompanying book is available. Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016). It features 56 letters in full color with brief reflections from art historians, curators, and the artists. All the letters are transcribed in the back. It’s lovely!